See if you can guess the source of the following quote: “Road building is not a government monopoly anymore. Those days are over.”
If you said (a) the chairman of a state turnpike authority, (b) a highway contractor or (c) the owner of several asphalt plants, move to the breakdown lane.
This pronouncement came from Federico Pena, U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Clinton., Mr. Pena evidently saw the writing on the wall — namely, that the general public’s tolerance for delays, rerouted gas-tax revenue, political shenanigans and other staples of government-controlled highway construction could stretch only so far.
Like many of America’s stories, transportation follows a certain arc. It begins with private roads and turnpikes and then shifts to more government involvement, with circumstances and trends keeping things in a state of flux. Simply put, we remain a country in search of balance. Recently this search has led North Carolina and other parts of the United States in the direction of public-private endeavors such as toll roads.
It’s easier to defend the status quo when the status quo is working. In North Carolina, that’s a hard case to make. The state has an estimated $65 billion in backlogged transportation projects through the year 2030. The N.C. Turnpike Authority established earlier this decade has the objective of relieving that pressure by bringing some private capital into the mix. Projects on the drawing board include a toll road nicknamed the Garden Parkway that would traverse Gaston County and cross the Catawba River into Charlotte.
People opposed to the Parkway point to the recent bankruptcy filing of a nonprofit that manages a South Carolina toll road. The main difference, of course, is that the Parkway involves some government funding that could serve as a hedge against overpowering debt. It also would enjoy a pool of potential users more than twice as large as the Greenville Southern Connector’s, based on the size of their respective metropolitan areas.
A larger number of users equals more toll revenue, and more toll revenue equals faster retirement of the debt incurred to build the road. Linking the actual users of the road to its financing means a more equitable distribution of cost than a system financed entirely by taxes.
Looking at the bigger picture, though, the very fact that North Carolina’s political leaders said yes to a turnpike authority should tell us something. It just might signal some reservations about state government’s control over highway construction, and a willingness to explore options.
The sentiment that Federico Pena voiced more than a decade ago still holds true. It seems clear that growth and other circumstances have rendered the old, government-dominated model of highway construction significantly less effective. As a result, the search for balance has taken a new road — not without bumps, certainly, but still moving toward progress.